Let us now examine the life of the German singer and entertainer Gottlieb Wendehals, who was the invention of a real person with a much less interesting name. Wikipedia describes Gottlieb Wendehals as an “art figure”, which strikes me as generous. The character sports a black-and-white checked jacket with matching spats, pink shirt and bow tie and thick eyeglasses, and he sings like your wife’s drunk uncle at the family Christmas party, at least if your wife is from Hamburg or Munich. I would wager he was never invited to a Hanukkah party, nor the celebration of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But of course, I’ve been wrong before.
Herr Wendehals had a huge hit in the 1980s, lasting several weeks at #1 on the German charts. The number is called Polonaise Blankenese, which is pronounced as a rhyming couplet, and loosely translates as “Clean-nose Conga Line.” The lyrics, in English, strike me as found poetry. Here is a sample.
The whole room should seethe tonight
It’s alright, boys, the night is far too short
Until tomorrow morning Elke should be yodeling here
At the moment we don’t care for what happens afterwards
How do we make sense of this feint of foreign flotsam, this trivial Teutonic tidbit, this ridiculous relic from the Rhineland, or wherever? I began by asking the one German friend I have, who is the lovely and talented Katja C, now living on this side of the Atlantic. As Katja explained, the character is meant to be a wild and crazy guy who is all about the partying. “When u r half wasted, all is good” wrote Katja.
Words to remember!
Which brings me to my own “art figure,” my novel, Fergus Falls. While the narrative includes a few scenes of revelry, I wrote every sentence while completely sober, which I know because my alcohol consumption is always limited, nor was I ever stoned or high or what have you, because the strongest drug in which I imbibe is aspirin. Yet somehow, when I was writing the novel and sharing chapters with reviewers (aka, other participants in writing groups,) arguably the most fervent praise and deepest insights came from twenty-somethings who told me they were smoking dope while reading.
The novel has various fantastic elements. For pity’s sake, a giant hallucinogenic mushroom lurks about many of the chapters.
We could argue whether I should put Katja’s quote on the cover, except that the book is already published.
Fergus Falls is a real community in northwestern Minnesota, far enough away from Minneapolis for the boyhood me to have never visited but large enough to make the weather maps on the Channel 5 evening news, which we watched regularly. My father thought the name of this town was very funny, and he generally repeated it with a smirk when it was announced. Thus was planted the seed for Fergus Falls, the novel, which I would begin writing a few years after departing Minnesota for the brighter lights of bigger cities.
I made all sorts of decisions about the novel on the day I started writing it, and all of them helped shape the work and brought me to the finish line. Here are the main decisions as I remember them:
Rule 1: Choose interesting names for the characters. Earlier in my (alleged) career, I had written a story with a lead character named Robert Palmer. Even at the time, I knew that was a terrible, boring, very bland name—no offense intended to anyone who actually has that name, such as the singer of “Addicted to Love” and other Top-40 hits. For Fergus Falls, I wanted names that were quirky, ethnic, possibly alliterative, and that would leave their stamp on the writing. Thus, I came up with Mayor Mingalone, Evelyn Kopak, Councilwoman Engebritzen, José Hosea, and all the others.
A few of the names were inspired by real people, meaning I took the real name and rhymed it or changed a few letters or whatever. Other names, such as Euphemia Roof-Tischinski and her husband Hosken Tischinski, were stolen (sorry, make that “adapted”) from past rosters of the Minnesota Twins, my hometown and default baseball team. One of my favorite names, Madame Cheveskaya, seemed to dance off the computer keyboard. Ah, the grace of randomness!
Rule 2: No writing about the family. Nothing against my family, of course, but I wanted the freedom to not write about them. I went so far as to avoid using the first names of family members, with a few exceptions. Arnold Knutson was named after my late, great Uncle Arnold, who would have appreciated the gesture even though the character is nothing like him and has nothing to do with him. Uncle Arnold was an amateur photographer and would-be astronomer whose livelihood involved leasing television sets from a small store on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. If anyone, Arnold resembled Appliance Pete in Chapter 3, although I didn’t write Appliance Pete with Arnold in mind, either.
Rule 3: Be interesting. Sounds simple, but harder than it looks. The rule meant that every chapter needed to stand on its own, with no background information, and no boring follow-ups. If a scene stopped being interesting, or if I couldn’t think of interesting events or discussions to happen next, I stopped the chapter and began a new one, generally on a totally different topic with totally different characters.
Rule 4: Write what you want to write. I had all sorts of Good Ideas, scenes that I wanted to write because they appealed to me. What if they didn’t fit? Well, I made them fit. Fergus Falls was whatever I wanted it to be.
Rule 5: Let the plot follow the characters. When I started writing, I had mostly vague ideas about which characters would last to the end and which would flame out after a few paragraphs or chapter. The mayor was clearly important, but he wound up mostly hanging over the narrative as a spiritual presence instead of contributing actively, and he disappears completely for long stretches. Appliance Pete was a throw-away who became significant after I realized his potential. Sarah Knutson and Madame Cheveskaya took over two long chapters of flashback, while Tommy Mingalone came to dominate the spring and summer sections. I had planned none of this. It just worked out that way.
So back to Gottlieb Wendehals, who is not in Fergus Falls for several reasons, such as that I learned of him only yesterday. Per online information, the musician who played him tried to abandon the character and instead sing Italian pop songs, or something like that, only to face an apathetic public and a dwindling bank account, so he resumed life as Gottlieb Wendehals, riding that pony into the sunset. You’ve got to give the public what they want. You also have to be true to yourself. You also have to save for retirement, even if at the moment, we don’t care for what happens afterwards.